Kevin Martin told a Raleigh audience earlier this month that, besides his extensive credentials, two life experiences prepared him to be chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Struggles over parking spaces at UNC-Chapel Hill while he was student government president were good practice for negotiations in Washington. And as the fourth of five children, he has experience fighting over the TV remote, which isn’t so different from negotiations among the FCC’s five commissioners.
Martin was in Raleigh Aug. 2 to address the N.C. Chamber of Commerce at the posh Cardinal Club, a private business retreat at the top of the Wachovia building downtown. Telecom companies AT&T, Fair Point Communications, Embarq and Corning, a fiberoptic cable manufacturer, were among the more than 120 invited guests.
Soft-spoken, politically moderate and resembling a blond Harry Potter, Martin is a rising star. The native North Carolinian grew up in Waxhaw, a small Union County town near Charlotte. After graduating from UNC, he earned a master’s degree in public policy from Duke. Martin’s roots in the Bush administration run deep: After serving as Deputy General Counsel for the Bush-Cheney 2000 campaign and its recount team in Florida, President Bush appointed him to a Republican seat on the FCC in 2001, then promoted him as chairman in 2005.
There is speculation that the 41-year-old commissioner might one day seek higher office representing North Carolina. Asked by a reporter if he would consider running for governor or senate, Martin said, “No, no. I’m just interested in making sure we’re doing a good job with the commission.” If he did run, he would likely find a supportive base among those dining at the Cardinal Club that afternoon.
Two days before Martin’s appearance, the FCC unveiled rules for the largest auction of the public airwaves in many decades. Television signals are going digital, and the old analog UHF frequencies will be turned over to cellular service providers in an auction by January of next year.
The auction terms are a good example of Martin’s sense of compromise. Google lobbied hard for four conditions it said would ensure a freer market and better consumer choice. The biggest cellular carriers, AT&T and Verizon, vehemently opposed these principles. In the end, Martin embraced the right of consumers to access their choices of software, Internet content and telecommunications devices. This means a cellular carrier won’t be able to restrict Internet access to certain sites, nor will it be able to force you to buy one of their phones.
Martin earned praise from Google for making “real, if incomplete, progress for consumers,” and even seemed to turn the cellular giants around: AT&T commended the FCC for not “stacking the deck in Google’s favor.” A fellow Republican commissioner criticized the plan as “unnecessary regulation.”
The 700-megahertz band of the spectrum offers many possibilities for improved servicefaster access to the Internet through cell phones and other devicesas the signal can travel farther and carry more data. It will also mean improved service to rural areas, a topic not often discussed in tech stories about the spectrum auction, but one that is close to Martin’s heart.
“I can remember when my address was Rural Route 3, Waxhaw,” Martin said. “The ability to be connected can be even more important when you live in a more isolated, rural area.” But the costs to serve those areas are higher. Martin said the FCC broke up part of the spectrum into small chunks to make it more affordable for smaller providers to bid. In return, the commission has required providers to offer service to a high percentage of residents in a given licensed area within three to four years. “We want to make sure that the people who are buying these airwaves are putting them to their full use,” Martin said.
Martin told the crowd he had spent the morning in Wilmington touring a Corning plant that makes fiber-optic cable, widely considered to be the best delivery system for digital services, compared to the glacial coaxial and telephone lines that run cable and DSL Internet. The process of laying down fiber infrastructure is expensive, but it is the future of broadband. Two days before Martin’s Raleigh visit, AT&T announced it would commit to spending $350 million on fiber upgrades in North Carolina in order to offer U-verse, a bundled Internet, television and phone service it already offers in at least 18 other states. (AT&T successfully opposed buildout requirements in the state video franchise bill that passed the legislature last year. No word yet on whether U-verse will be available on Rural Route 3 in Waxhaw.)
Unlike his predecessor, Chairman Michael Powell, Martin is not an anti-regulation ideologue in lock step with Republicans and telecom companies. Martin has advocated several consumer-friendly policy changes, to the industry’s chagrin. Over the objections of cable providers and the National Association of Broadcasters, he has pushed for a la carte cable pricing to give subscribers a choice of channels they wish to pay for, which he sees as a way to give parents control over the content their kids see.
He’s also dead serious about enforcing indecency rules. In June, when a federal court struck down an FCC ruling against the Fox network after celebrities let slip the words “fuck” and “shit” during a prime-time awards show broadcast, Martin released a statement lambasting the decision, repeating the expletives for rhetorical effect. “I find it hard to believe that the New York court would tell American families that ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’ are fine to say on broadcast television during the hours when children are most likely to be in the audience,” Martin wrote. He lamented that the decision means “Hollywood will be able to say anything they want, whenever they want.” Was Martin’s language designed to impress Middle Americaor North Carolina voters, perhaps?